If you find yourself blowing up on your Fourth of July road trip, you might be having a perfectly normal reaction to driving on Interstate 95. Or you might have an actual, diagnosable mental disorder.
The condition is called Intermittent Explosive Disorder and the American Psychiatric Association says between 5 and 7 percent of American adults suffer from it. (The people on the receiving end of their outbursts suffer, too.)
It is characterized by impulsive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which a person reacts grossly out of proportion to a situation. And, according to Dr. Michael McCloskey, associate professor of psychology at Temple University, those disagnosed with the disorder are more likely to experience road rage.
“We all get cut off at some point when we drive,’’ said McCloskey. “Individuals with [Intermittent Explosive Disorder] get so aggravated they react in a way that may be destructive.’’
It was once defined as a seizure disorder, according to Dr. Royce Lee, an associate professor of psychiatry at University of Chicago, but recent evidence suggests certain hormonal responses and biological markers can make you more susceptible.
In patients with the disorder, brain signaling involved in releasing stress hormones and serotonin — the hormone associated with happiness — may not work adequately, McCloskey and Lee said.
Recent studies also suggest that those with the disorder had higher levels of two inflammatory markers in the blood that are associated with aggression and impulsivity.
“That type of inflammation is seen in a lot of chronic disorders like diabetes but also in psychiatric disorders like anxiety,’’ said Lee.
During episodes, the parts of the brain that deals with executive functioning — such as navigating between right and wrong —and emotional regulation are less active compared to those without a psychological disorder, McCloskey and Lee said.
Environment also plays a role. Lee said many diagnosed with the disorder have what he calls “hostile attribution.’’.
“The thought is that the person hates them and is rude intentionally toward them,’’ said Lee. “In reality, the other driver may have just forgot to keep in their lane.’’
Lee said that many with the disorder likely had anger problems as children and have experienced repeated episodes over years.
“Oftentimes in childhood they have anxiety,’’ he said. “It looks like their anger never got under control, and they stayed that way.’’
In general, people with the disorder lash out when they feel more comfortable and less restrained, Lee said — like when they’re in their cars.
“It’s likely that people with [Intermittent Explosive Disorder] lose their temper in other domains as well,’’ he said, adding that people with the disorder can also become perpetrators of workplace aggression and domestic violence.
A single episode of rage is not enough for a person to be diagnosed.
“It’s natural to be angry sometimes and to get upset once in a while,’’ McCloskey said. “If you see a pattern of anger having a negative impact on your life, then you want to do something about it.’’
The good news, says McCloskey, is that the disorder can be treated.
Treatment ranges from cognitive behavioral therapy to medications like antidepressants. If you think you have it, Lee suggests talking to your physician or seeing a psychiatrist.
For those of us who experience road rage but may not have the disorder, experts suggests a few simple — yet sometimes easier said than done — steps.
Plan ahead, said McClosky.
“Try not to put yourself in a situation where you’ll be rushed,’’ said McCloskey. “The more stressed you are in general, the more vulnerable you’re going to be.’’
And if you’re seething with anger when someone cuts you off?
“Pull over and just sit. Stop driving, and don’t pursue the other driver,’’ Lee said.